From football players, to baseball players, to gymnasts, to pro-wrestlers: athletes have been crossing over into the world of movies and television for almost as long as Hollywood has existed. As athletes generally tend to be in peak physical condition it makes sense to see them transition, often seamlessly, into starring roles in action movies, and as they explore deeper into world of acting, some even find they are suited for comedy or drama roles.
While many of these athletes-turned-actors compete at a high level in their sports on a national stage, only an elite few ever find themselves competing on the world stage, in what is arguably the biggest sporting event held on a global scale: the Olympic Games. Some celebrities not only competed in the Olympic Games, such as American pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock (he won a gold medal in rowing at the 1924 Summer Games), but also managed to come away victorious.
To qualify for this list, we’ve intentionally left out any athlete who hasn’t actually acted in a movie or television show, and have also exclude those who only appeared on reality shows, talk shows and sketch comedy shows (such as Olympic swimmers Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps.)
Let’s take a look at 15 Actors Who Were Once Olympic Athletes
15. Bob Anderson
Sports Competed: Fencing
Years Competed: 1952
Robert James Gilbert Anderson was a truly remarkable person. Besides being a decorated soldier in the Royal Marines during World War II, he was a skilled athlete with an épée and won many medals during the British Empire Games in 1950. While he didn’t manage to place high enough to take home a medal during the 1952 Summer Olympic Games in Helsinki, Finland, he’s considered to have been one of the best in the world of fencing, and still held in high regard in the sport.
You’ve most likely never heard of Bob Anderson, but you’re definitely familiar with his work. Often going uncredited, his contributions to the world of cinema are vast and many people have seen him but never knew it. He got his start teaching swordwork to Errol Flynn in The Master of Ballantrae and worked behind-the-scenes on many movies, such as The Lord of the Rings and the Highlander television series. All that aside, he’s most well known for being under the mask as Darth Vader during lightsaber battles with Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy.
14. Johnny Weissmuller
Sports Competed: Swimming/Water Polo
Years Competed: 1924/1928
Until the time of his death in 1984 at the age of 80, Johnny Weissmuller was best known for two things: swimming and playing Tarzan. He started setting world records in swimming at the young age of seventeen when he swam the 100m freestyle event in a mere 52 seconds – a record that would remain unbroken for seventeen years. He competed in the Summer Olympic Games in 1924 and 1928 and was dominate in both swimming and water polo.
Because of his physique and his natural acting ability, Hollywood soon latched onto Weissmuller, turning him into the jungle man known as Tarzan of the Apes – the first live-action version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ character from his classic novel. For 47 years, Weissmuller dabbled in acting but it’s his twelve Tarzan movies that will always stand out as his greatest onscreen achievement.
13. Harold Sakata
Sports Competed: Weightlifting
Years Competed: 1948
When it comes to Olympic sports, weightlifting usually isn’t the first thing that comes to people’s minds. That being the case, it wouldn’t be surprising if you hadn’t heard Harold Sakata – though he’s easily the most well-known American weightlifter to ever compete in the Olympics. He would eventually take home a silver during the 1948 Summer Olympic Games in the Men’s Light-Heavyweight competition (total score of the best lifts from military press, snatch, and clean and jerk).
After the Olympics, Sakata tried his hand at professional wrestling, entering the ring under the moniker “Tosh Togo”. Then the native Hawaiian hit the acting scene, cleanly lifting his first performance opposite Sean Connery as the evil henchman known as “Oddjob” in Goldfinger. He even hurt Connery during one scene when producers asked him to “put some realism” into a karate chop. Sakata continued to act until the time of his death in 1982, but Oddjob will forever be his most memorable role.
12. Noel Harrison
Sports Competed: Alpine Skiing
Years Competed: 1952/1956
Originally, Noel Harrison was best well-known for being the son of Doctor Dolittle himself, the Oscar-winning Sir Rex Harrison. However, after moving to Switzerland, Harrison discovered he had a talent for skiing – a talent that was good enough to allow him to join the Great Britain ski team and compete in three downhill alpine events during two Winter Olympic Games (though he never medaled).
In the early 1960s, Harrison started following in his father’s footsteps and began acting in small roles in both England and America. After a guest starring role in The Man for U.N.C.L.E., he snagged a recurring role in the show’s spinoff, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. He even dabbled in music, recording a Top 10 hit, “The Windmills of Your Mind” for the movie The Thomas Crown Affair in 1968 and also appeared as himself on two seasons of The Hollywood Squares.
11. Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner
Sports Competed: Decathlon
Years Competed: 1972/1976
As a teenager, Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce), excelled in many athletic activities, including track and field events and football. Though attending college on a football scholarship, that endeavor was soon abandoned, choosing instead to focus on the decathlon – the most arduous of all the track and field sports. Going home without a medal in the 1972 Summer Olympic Games didn’t sit well, so Jenner returned in 1972 to take home the gold and earned the title of “World’s Greatest Athlete”.
Before a career in the world of reality television, Jenner played scattered guest roles in various television shows, such as The Fall Guy, Murder She Wrote, and The Love Boat. However, Jenner caught a break on a recurring role as Officer Steve McLeish on the hit show CHiPS, replacing Erik Estrada for seven episodes during the fifth season because a contract dispute. Jenner also appeared briefly in The Hungover Games as Skip Bayflick.
10. Michael Jordan
Sports Competed: Basketball
Years Competed: 1984/1992
Arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time, Michael Jordan helped lead the Chicago Bulls to five NBA titles before his retirement (his first of three) in 1993, but returned in 1995, eventually helping them win one more title in 1998. Jordan first competed in the Olympic Games as a college student in 1984 but he’s best known for his participation as part of the “Dream Team” (which also included Patrick Ewing, Larry Bird, Scottie Pippen, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson) at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.
Calling Michael Jordan an “actor” is, admittedly, a bit of a stretch, as the well-known athlete has only ever played himself in the various movies and television shows in which he has been involved. However, while his official credit in Space Jam is “Michael Jordan”, it’s hard not to at least mention him in this list in some capacity. Space Jam was, by far, his greatest on-screen accomplishment, where, together with Bill Murray, Bugs Bunny and various other Warner Bros. animated characters, defeat the evil Monstars in a game of basketball.
9. Kurt Angle
Sports Competed: Freestyle Wrestling
Years Competed: 1996
While many wrestling fans today recognize Kurt Angle as a familiar face for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) and Total Nonstop Action Wrestling (TNA), where he held several championship titles, it’s his performance at the the 1996 Olympic Games that help to jumpstart his career. During those Games, Angle took home a gold medal in impressive fashion in the Men’s Heavyweight Freestyle event, soundly defeating Abbas Jadidi from Iran in the final match.
Angle has made many appearances at himself in various WWE-sponsored videos and television events, even dabbling briefly in smaller roles in made-for-television movies. However, not being content with that, he started expanding his on-screen career, eventually landing bit parts in major Hollywood productions such as, The Last Witch Hunter, and Dylan Dog: Dead of Night. He can also be seen in the scifi camp-fest, Sharknado 2: The Second One and portraying himself in action/horror film Pro-Wrestlers vs Zombies.
8. Shaquille O’Neal
Sports Competed: Basketball
Years Competed: 1996
Since entering the NBA in 1992, after being drafted first overall by the Orlando Magic, Shaquille O’Neal has been a dominant force in the game of basketball. The former Louisiana State standout quickly racked up many awards including Rookie of the Year, eventually leading his team to the NBA finals in 1995. It’s not surprising, then, that he would be selected to participate in the second “Dream Team” in 1996 for the Summer Olympic Games held in Atlanta, GA. The team ended up taking the gold medal.
Like Michael Jordan before him, O’Neal was quickly recruited by Hollywood for a basketball movie. In the highly underrated Blue Chips, co-starring Nick Nolte, Penny Hardaway and Matt Nover, O’Neal plays a talented college basketball player who is wrapped up in a a points shaving scandal. Shaq went on to star in a leading role in movies such as Kazaam and Steel, but both movies were unanimously panned by critics and audiences. He has made numerous other appearances, but only as himself.
7. Hillary Wolf
Sports Competed: Judo
Years Competed: 1996/2000
For the most part, athletes become actors, not the other way around. However, Hillary Wolf is the exception to that rule. The young actress appeared in many made-for-TV movies and but the highlight of her acting career was at age fourteen when she played Megan, the older sister of Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) in the hit movie Christmas movie, Home Alone. She left acting altogether after reprising her role in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York in 1992.
She stopped acting to pursue another, and entirely different career, one in the field of sports: judo. She started training in judo when she was just seven years old and became proficient enough at the sport (which is based on throwing your opponent to the ground) that she made the American Olympic team, representing her nation twice at the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia and Sydney, Australia, respectfully. Though she didn’t medal at either Games, she still ranked in the Top 10 in 1996, eventually finishing ninth.
6. Tara Lipinski
Sports Competed: Figure Skating
Years Competed: 1998
Tara Lipinski was a pint-sized powerhouse figure skater who started off her skating career on roller skates at the age of six but moved on to the ice in her early-teens, where she started consistently placing in the Top 5 at competitions. However, in 1997 she upset American darling Michelle Kwan at the US and World Championships. While many considered her the underdog going into the 1998 Winter Olympic Games, she stole the show with an impressive singles routine, which nabbed her the gold medal.
Because of her sudden appeal to American audiences, Hollywood quickly signed Lipinski to appear in roles on several television shows. She had minor roles in Touched by an Angel, 7th Heaven and Malcolm in the Middle but scored a recurring role in the long-running daytime soap opera, The Young and the Restless as Megan Dennison’s (Ashley Jones) friend, Marie Kowalski. She is currently a cultural correspondent for NBC covering the 2016 Olympic Games and is an executive producer on a figure skating drama series in the works for Hulu.
5. Serena Williams
Sports Competed: Tennis
Years Competed: 2000/2008/2012
There is very little doubt that 35 year old Serena Williams is the best female tennis player in the world – she is currently ranked number 1, after all. Not only has she won 22 Grand Slam events but she’s won four gold medals at the Olympic Games three different times in both women’s doubles (alongside her sister Venus Williams) and women’s single competitions.
Unlike her sister Venus (who has appeared as herself in numerous documentaries and sports shows), Serena caught the acting bug and has done fairly well in a sitcom setting (My Wife and Kids and The Bernie Mac Show). She seems to excel better at drama, making several notable appearances in ER, The Division, Drop Dead Diva, and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Her most bizarre “self” appearance to date was in Pixels, where she teamed up with Martha Stewart for an implied three-way with Peter Dinklage in the White House.
4. Alexandre Despatie
Sports Competed: Diving
Years Competed: 2000/2004/2008/2012
Canadian-born Alexandre Despatie has always been a diver, but started competing at a high level in his early teens during the 1998 Commonwealth Games where he, at the age of only thirteen, achieved a score of perfect 10s across the board, a feat that landed him in the 2000 Guinness Book of World Records and earned him a gold medal in the men’s 10 meter platform competition. While never able to reach gold status at any of the four Olympic Games in which he competed, he did manage to snag silver at both the 2004 and 2008 Games.
While not necessarily a worldwide name, Despatie is generally known to most Canadians for his diving achievements and his limited acting appearances: Taking the Plunge, Tout le monde en parle (Everybody Talks about It), Bye-Bye and Taking the Plunge 2. His feature film debut in À vos marques! Party! (On your mark! Party!) was a small, but important, role in 2007. He’s since retired from diving and is a currently a sports commentator.
3. Apolo Ohno
Sports Competed: Speed Skating
Years Competed: 2002/2006/2010
Apolo Anton Ohno grew up in Seattle, Washington and had misspent youth, routinely getting into trouble. However, his parents put him on the right “track” by having him works those trouble out with speed skating. It turned out to be a wise decision on their part as Ohno has earned eight medals at various Winter Olympic Games, including three gold. While not necessarily known for his sprints, he did manage to win gold in the 500 meters, but most of his medals came from the 1000 or 1500 meter events.
Ohno’s post-Olympic Hollywood career has been fleeting, but he turned in an impressive performance in a guest starring role as Seth Burgess in the Hawaii Five-0 reboot television series back in 2012. He’s always been a fan favorite athlete and in 2007, used that public fawning to help him win the reality game show Dancing with the Stars. He’s also hosted Minute to Win It on the Game Show Network and was hired by NBC to be a commentator during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
2. Lebron James
Sports Competed: Basketball
Years Competed: 2004/2008/2012
When it comes to modern basketball players, few can touch the pure talent Lebron James possesses. Having the unique distinction of being the first overall pick drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers directly out of high school in 2003, James has dominated the court, winning several awards and NBA titles during the course of his 13-year career. It’s not surprising, then, that he was selected to lead Team USA to three medals (including two golds) at consecutive Summer Olympic Games.
Like Michael Jordan and Shaq, Lebron has slowly started dabbling in acting. While he’s only played himself in these roles, he had what many consider to be standout performance in Amy Schumer’s comedy/drama Trainwreck, where he played sport physician Aaron’s (Bill Hader) soft-talking best friend. He will also be taking over for Jordan in the recently announced Space Jam 2, where he’ll again play himself, but this time in a leading role.
1. McKayla Maroney
Sports Competed: Gymnastics
Years Competed: 2012
As a gymnast competing during the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, England, McKayla Maroney had no equal when she helped lead Team USA to the gold in the Women’s Team All-Around Competition. As the odds-on favorite (and the reigning world champion) to win the women’s Horse Vault, Maroney looked poised to easily take home the gold. However, she fell on her second attempt, which lowered her overall score and she only earned a silver in the event – which led to the now infamous “McKayla Maroney is not impressed face“.
McKayla has played herself in several television shows, such as the comedy Superstore and also competed on Dancing with the Stars in 2012. Her first true acting experience wasn’t until her role as Tonya on the CBS drama series Hart of Dixie starring Rachel Bilson (Jumper) and Jamie King (Sin City) – a recurring role in which she appeared six times. She was also had a small role in one episode of long-running crime procedural Bones in 2013.
Esther Williams – Swimming: She would’ve competed in the 1940 Olympic Games had WWII not broken out. She had a successful career in Hollywood starring in several popular “aquamusicals”.
Robert Stack – Skeet Shooting: Best known for The Untouchables and Unsolved Mysteries, Stack was also an award-winning skeet shooter. He was inducted into the Skeet Shooting Hall of Fame in 1971.
Bruce Dern – Running: An avid speed skater, Dern, a gifted runner in college, was discouraged because he was up against four of the greatest half-milers of the 1950s – though he didn’t know it at the time.
Geena Davis – Archery: She picked up archery as a hobby but almost made the 2000 USA Olympic Team, where she placed 24th out of 300 at the tryouts. She had only been shooting for two years prior to trying out.
Jason Statham – Diving: He developed an interest in diving at age 11, joined Britain’s National Diving Team and competed in the 1990 Commonwealth Games.
Randy Couture – Greco-Roman Wrestling: The former MMA fighter was closer than most actors when it came to competing in the Olympics. He was a wrestling alternate 1996 Games in Atlanta.
Dolph Lundgren – Pentathlon: He’s only played an olympic athlete in the action/crime thriller Pentathlon but was asked to serve as the Team Leader for the 1996 U.S. Olympic Modern Pentathlon team.
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